FBA Book Club discusses work about Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg
By Steve Thorpe
For nearly eight years, a group of legal professionals has regularly gathered to examine and discuss how their profession is portrayed in literature and history.
The stated goal of the Federal Bar Association Book Club is to “facilitate an informal but elevated dialogue between the bench and the bar.”
The book discussed at their Nov. 18 meeting at the Levin Courthouse in Detroit was “Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World,” by Linda Hirshman.
The book, published in September, explores the unlikely relationship between Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Republican and Democrat, Christian and Jew, Arizona rancher’s daughter and Brooklyn city girl, they were the first and second women to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hirshman is the author of several other books on the law and has appeared on NPR, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, and the Colbert Report. She writes for the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Ms., Slate, the Daily Beast and Salon.
The FBA Book Club was the brainchild of Chapter President Mark Goldsmith. On Jan. 22, 2008, about 35 FBA members, including several district judges, met at the courthouse to discuss “The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court,” by Jeffrey Toobin.
“If you look at what we’ve read and discussed in seven years, it’s a pretty good library at this point,” said Co-chair Andrew Doctoroff, also one of the founders of the club. “Today’s book was proposed by Erica Fitzgerald, one of our co-chairs. We thought it was right in our wheelhouse. Some books draw more attendees than others and, as you can see, this one was popular.”
In addition to candid portraits of the two women, the book covers the history of the era and the struggles for acceptance by women in the law.
“I appreciated the history,” said Judge Marianne Battani. “I can still remember looking for a job and being told ‘We’re not sure our clients will accept a female attorney.’ I think it’s good for young women to have that knowledge. Things weren’t always this way.”
Kimberly Altman pointed out that, because O’Connor was the first woman on the court, she inspired many schoolgirls to consider law.
“I have to say how important Sandra Day O’Connor was to women at the time,” Altman said. “I remember that in seventh grade we had to write an essay on who we thought was the most influential person, who we most admired. Most of the kids wrote about superstars. I wrote about Sandra Day O’Connor, who had just been appointed to the Supreme Court. Even as a child I had a sense of her impact.”
“In some ways, Justice O’Connor paved the way for Justice Ginsburg.”
Some participants questioned, why these two women in the same book? But most said they thought the match was perfect.
“It’s a court of nine,” said Judge Avern Cohn. “(It’s been said) that on a court of nine justices, the most important quality is the ability to count to five. They were two very important votes. To juxtapose them is fascinating.“
“I found the differences between the two justices fascinating, including how they came to the court,” said Club Co-chair David Fink. “I wish the book had spent less time on their history before they got to the court and more on the actual interaction between them.”
One of the areas of discussion that provoked lively exchanges — and laughter — was the section of the book that touched upon the justices’ husbands and their influence.
“You don’t get to the Supreme Court by yourself,” Fink said. “It isn’t just the support of a spouse. But, frankly, if I were married to Marty Ginsberg my career would’ve gone much farther! But you can’t argue that either of these women who reached the court were more dependent on their husbands than the men who got there depended on their wives.”
“We all network,” she said. “We all take advantage of our resources so we can push ahead. If someone gave you that push, it didn’t matter if they were male or female. These women didn’t rely on their husbands for their careers, but their husbands helped them and why shouldn’t they?”
It was left to the irrepressible Judge Cohn to have the last word.
“I guarantee Ruth Ginsburg didn’t say to her husband, ‘You stay out of this!’ “ he said to much laughter. “If you want to be a judge, you’re going to take all the support you can get.”
Several of the participants also felt that the book showed a definite slant in favor of Ginsburg, sometimes discounting the contributions and impact of O’Connor.
“It was very much a pro-Ginsburg book,” said Battani.
Judge Mark Goldsmith felt that the slant also extended to politics and social issues.
“I enjoyed the ‘inside baseball’ dimension of the book,” he said. “I found it disappointing, though, that it’s an ideologue’s book. For example, the book makes it seem that anyone opposed to Roe v. Wade was a complete Neanderthal and that there was no basis for disagreement. Some respected scholars, not just from the right wing, took exception to the decision.”
The club’s next book has not yet been selected, but the group will meet again in spring of 2016.
To participate in the book club, register online at www.fbamich.org or contact Brian Figot at 248-594-5950 or firstname.lastname@example.org.